Richard Janes: One woman digital empress who Mashable named alongside Al Gore as a top Twitter personality to follow, my guest today is a healthy living crusader inspiring, educating, and empowering people to live the healthiest, happiest life possible. Living a planet-friendly lifestyle, she’s offered several e-books, taught classes at BlogHer Food, and participated in panels for Fitness Magazine and the blog WELL Summit. She became a vegetarian in May 2003, vegan just a few months later, and launched her own growing empire Eco Vegan Girl in October in 2008.
My guest today is Whitney Lauritsen. And I’ve been following her career for a number of years as I flirted on and off with being a vegetarian or vegan myself. And for a large percentage of people, the number one reason given for making this choice is not in fact animal welfare but due to the impact on their own health and wellness.
Today, Whitney has over a thousand YouTube videos documenting her life as an eco-vegan girl which merges her passion of veganism with her other passion of filmmaking. I started by asking her: “What came first—veganism or filmmaking?”
Whitney Lauritsen: I had a passion for being on camera for performing. When I was a little girl, I loved to perform. I remember in 5th grade I did this play in school and I came alive in a way that I had never experienced in my 10 years of life. It was like an aha moment and so over the years I just started to try to figure out how I could act on camera, and that's where the passion for film came because the way that I was able to act on camera was making my own movies as a little girl.
My dad was so into computers and from a very young age, I was introduced to the computer and then from a very young age, I was introduced to the camera. And so, I knew how to operate a camera and use a computer at a probably much younger age than a lot of kids because not every parent would have all this technology, know how to use it and then even introduce it to their children.
And so, that combination of being passionate about tech from a young age and also just knowing what it felt like to be on camera even when my dad was making home videos, there was something that I felt drawn to there and he would film me like doing little performances with my sister or something and I just liked that. Being on the camera like from that young age, like you turn a camera on me and I was ready to go and there was no fear there.
“Honey, can you sing the alphabet song for me?”
“A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, M, O, P…”
So my entire immediate family are all entrepreneurs. We all work for ourselves. We all have our own home businesses. My parents used to work in the city. I grew up in Massachusetts. My father worked in Cambridge at Harvard Law School and my mother worked at what is now Bank of America. And when I was about 12, both of them left their jobs in the city and started their own businesses at home. And so my father moved his whole business to the house and continued working in the legal world, and my dad is a “legal technologist”, that's the term he used. So again, we’re very into tech, very into the law. All of that.
And my mother decided to focus on horse training. I grew up on a horse farm and that's her passion, always has been. So what used to be more of a hobby when she was working a full-time career in the banking industry, she decided to leave that and do horses full-time. So she rides horses and trains horses, competes, all of that, buys horses. And to this day, that's what she does.
And now my sister, I have one sibling, a younger sister and she also runs her own horse business.
As a teenager looking out on that, it just felt so easy and natural that I think it gave me permission later on in my life. It wasn’t until over 10 years later that I decided to do that for myself. I guess they kind of set the groundwork for that and then they were, as I said, so supportive of me when I decided to do that on my own.
Richard Janes Commentary: And this brings us to an important question in passion and purpose. Is passion and purpose something that's inherited or is it an acquired characteristic?
Psychologists have long since debated the Nature versus Nurture impact, and in Whitney’s case, here she was finding a love in something that was clearly in her father’s DNA. But he also introduced it to his daughter at an early age.
There’s a truth to the saying that “we don’t know or we don’t know.” So intrinsically, we need to expose ourselves to as many experiences as possible in order to find those ones that really resonate with us the most. In the early years this is done through our parents, through our schooling and friends, but as we get older that responsibility of experiencing the world so that we know how we can uniquely fit into it well full squarely and solely on our shoulders.
But here’s the thing. Unfortunately, many of us were never told this as we transitioned into adulthood. Many people were never told that if you don’t know what your passion and purpose is, that it’s up to you to go out, try new things and keep trying new things until you found something that makes your heart sing.
For Whitney, she was lucky enough that through her dad she found filmmaking, but then quite by accident she found another purpose—veganism.
Whitney Lauritsen: One of the best things my parents did for me as they paid for me to go to this film program at New York University Tisch School, they had this amazing one-month long immersive program for high school students that were on the verge of, you know, going to college. I did a whole month in New York City learning how to make films and it was basically like a pre-film school program.
“Quiet on the set!”
And it was the defining moment of my life in many ways. This is where not only did I learn a lot of what I know now including video edit. That was the first time I really learned digital video editing and so many things that I was taught in that program but that's also where I met the person that later inspired me to go vegan.
One of like the biggest crushes I’ve ever had, his name was Nick. I met this guy and had like the biggest crush on him and it was just like this huge emotional thing for me. And he was vegetarian from birth and that was something really interesting about him. And I had feelings for him for years after this program.
And so my initial dip into all of it was kind of like to try to impress him, trying to like say, “Well, maybe if I go vegetarian he’ll like me and he’ll want to date me.” And so I literally left New York City. I think it was May 31st, 2003. I left New York City that day after visiting him, went back to my grandparents’ home in New York City who I was staying with. They had made me some chicken for dinner and I didn’t want to turn it down so I ate it and that was the last meal that I had. So it’s been over 14 years now. And the next day, I was ready to be vegetarian and that was it for me.
Richard Janes: So at what point did it go from “Hey, I'm doing this to impress Nick” to “Actually, this feels absolutely in touch with who I am and what I'm about”?
Whitney Lauritsen: I was very concerned about my health and my body and so over the course of a few months I started to lose weight and my body just like was responding so well to eating vegetarian. And because I’ve always been a researcher, I wanted to know everything about it so I went to the library and I picked up books and I read about this.
I was blown away by what I was learning. I had no idea what was happening in factory farms. I had no idea how most of my food was being made, where it was coming from, what was happening to animals.
And I grew up on a farm where we had pets. We never killed any animals there. They weren’t for food except for chicken, eggs, and all that. But it was that aha moment of “Wow! I don’t want to hurt animals,” and “Oh, this is good for my health and this is good for the environment.” It just all clicked and I just couldn’t say no. Once I learned all the information there was no turning back.
Richard Janes Commentary: No turning back is a common moment in the hero’s journey. That moment where your eyes have been opened, your heart has grown and you know that you will no longer be the person you once were. And while this is an amazing, exciting feeling, one that we all hope to experience in our own hero’s journey, it’s also one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.
No turning back means it will never be the same again. And you’re shutting the door in the past, and that can become immensely scary. So scary, in fact, that for many of us we go right up to that line, can reach out and touch our passion and purpose and yet, we don’t make that leap to fully embracing it, to fully owning it as to who we are. And as time goes by and we fail to make that commitment, we drift further and further away from our passion until that moment where it is just a faint memory and the energy we take to get that back to that place of no return will be immense.
If we are to embrace passion and purpose in our life, there’s bound to be a moment where we have to take that leap of faith where there’s no turning back. For Whitney, she drove straight into her passions, made that commitment to veganism and took the next natural step she could think of in embracing her life as a filmmaker.
Whitney Lauritsen: A year after I went vegan, I moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry and that's where I met Amy. And Amy knew that I was vegan and she took me to a documentary screening. It was a friend of hers I think from college named Shaun Monson and he had this new film called Earthlings.
“Since we all inhabit the earth, all of us are considered earthlings. However, it is the human earthling who tends to dominate the earth, oftentimes treating other fellow earthlings and living beings as mere objects. This is what is meant by speciesism.”
And that was a turning point for me. That documentary has impacted a lot of people because it's a movie that shows all the realities of how we use animals for not just our food but our entertainment, our clothing, all these different elements of our lives. And that movie was such a big turning point and I would say I would credit that movie to when I went fully vegan.
Before that, I was just doing it for kind of the health and maybe the animal rights and the environment, but that movie was the first big education I had about everything else that was happening that no one was really talking about that openly.
Richard Janes Commentary: And here we come back to this idea that the primary reason, the number one reason that people make changes in their diet is, in Whitney’s words, the health and maybe the animals. The health was the defining factor. And as with all our passions, when it strikes, when you find that thing that lights your heart and you know you can enjoy all sorts of discomfort to have it in your life, you’ll realize that there have always been arrows pointing this way for many, many years. You just failed to see them.
For Whitney, one of those arrows was her relationship with food. At a young age, she developed an eating disorder that made a big impact for much of her teens.
Whitney Lauritsen: Probably around 12, that’s when I really started to feel self-conscious about my body and just kind of being afraid that people wouldn’t desire me, you know, like I was starting to have feelings for boys and crushes were developing and just feeling self-conscious about how I looked and wanting to be pretty and desirable even at such a young age. And I think that there were definitely some things that happened around that age that made me feel self-conscious about my weight and I remember starting to feel concerned about how I was going to get in shape at such a young age.
Richard Janes: Wow!
Whitney Lauritsen: Yeah. I remember having a lot of conversations about that and just trying to figure out my body back then. And then those emotions of something like an eating disorder are so deeply ingrained in you in a lot of ways especially when they develop so early on. So I still have to work through them. That's still an ongoing process for me.
My struggles with my weight and the eating disorder I had as a result helped me become more passionate about veganism because when I went vegan, it was the first time in my life I understood food and its relationship to my body. I didn't know where my food came from. I always felt like “oh, you have to count calories and fat content,” but when I went vegan I didn't read how many calories were in things anymore. I just read what ingredients were in it.
And I learned that health is not counting calories. Health is about how your body responds to certain foods and that helped me overcome so many of my challenges with the eating disorder and really get that under control.
Richard Janes Commentary: As counterintuitive as it may sound, sometime facing your biggest demons can actually be the place you find your true self. Now in personal brand work, we call this “embracing your shadow.” And because you’ve struggled so much with your shadow, you’ll have the ability to talk about what it’s actually like and connect with people who are facing similar issues.
In Whitney’s case, there she was facing an eating disorder that was causing her so much pain and sadness and yet deep in the center of it, she finds her sole authority on healthy living. I hear from people time and time again who have developed an authority status in a given area of struggle but don’t own that authority because they feel as if it’s a weakness for them.
Who would you prefer to listen to? Some of us have gone through what you’re going through and come out the other side. Or someone who’s read a book and can present theories to you but never actually experienced it, never felt it in their heart. The key to owning that authority lies in your willingness to be vulnerable.
Whitney Lauritsen: I learned somehow to have the courage to be very vulnerable with my content online and out of that came a lot of feedback from people that could relate to my story and felt relieved to hear that somebody else is going through it and really interested in learning how I overcame a lot of those struggles or at least have worked through many of them.
Richard Janes: What was the biggest turning point, that “work through” moment?
Whitney Lauritsen: I went to a therapist. I remember when I was in college, I think it was my freshman year in college, I started to realize that the eating disorder was not something good and I went to the therapist to talk about the eating disorder and the therapist identified all of the things that were causing the eating. For me, I think I didn’t make the connection between my emotions and the eating disorder until I went to therapy.
And so I was probably 18 or 19 at this point and having somebody break down why these patterns were happening and it gave me all these aha moments, and I remember I was like, I instantly was able to stop a lot of the things that I was doing. And that's another one of my talents and I know it's rare; I can change very quickly.
When somebody points something out to me and says “Hey, this is destructive. There’s another way to do this. You can improve.” If you just tell me what to do, I’ll change almost immediately. And I remember leaving that therapy session and saying, “Okay, I'm going to shift. I'm going to stop this and I’m going to shift it somehow,” and I did very quickly.
Richard Janes Commentary: So with this newfound love of veganism and everything that goes along with it, Whitney head out to Los Angeles to chase her other passion—that of working in the film industry. She started interning at various production companies and studios and then, her sister comes down to visit. And suddenly, she has a thought.
Whitney Lauritsen: “Hey, maybe we should do a restaurant.” I honestly have no idea where this idea came from. I really don’t. But my sister was comfortable being in videos with me and she said yes to it, and I took her to this restaurant called Madeleine Bistro which just closed, unfortunately. And it was like this fancy vegan restaurant that I had never been to and I was so excited about it. And my sister and I went in there and we filmed this video. It was a part of a series. It was like “The Vegan Adventures of Whitney and Mary.”
“Hi. We are here at Madeleine’s Bistro. This is our first time. It’s in Tarzana, California. And we’re here for the Saturday brunch…”
And so, it was just like this series. I thought, let’s go to these restaurants and do these reviews. And so, I took her to maybe 5 to 10 restaurants while she was visiting. We documented all of them and then I edited all of them and put them on YouTube.
And I have no idea why I did this but it was kind of just like “Well, let’s just see what happens.” There was absolutely no strategy. It was simply just my passions coming together for veganism and for filmmaking and my skills, I just liked making movies. And so I put them up and people really responded to them.
And so, it was kind of like, “Hmm, maybe I had something here. Maybe I should start making videos.” And then that was the spark and I started making videos all the time.
Back then, I would document almost every exciting meal I had whenever I tried something new, when I went to a new restaurant; when I learned something new, when I got a new product. It was like anything, I just wanted to share everything that was happening on this journey.
Richard Janes: Why was that? Why did you want to share everything?
Whitney Lauritsen: Because of the passion. It was just overflowing out of me. I just couldn’t contain it. I needed to put that passion somewhere. And so having a blog and then combining my passion for being on camera and editing, it just like felt very good to share these passions with other people because keeping it to myself felt uncomfortable, I guess.
It's kind of like when you see a friend and you can’t wait to tell them something. That would happen to me all the time with these things and a lot of people just weren’t interested in it. My friends were like, “Well, I don’t really need to hear you talk about what you’re eating.” And my parents would always roll their eyes like, “Stop talking to us about food.”
I needed an outlet. And so putting it online was kind of just hoping that somebody else would care, I guess, and people started to care. They were interested in it. So the more people will give me this positive feedback, the more I wanted to do it and then it was like, I finally had a container to share all this passions. It was like everything that I struggled with and everything that I loved when was younger developed into this big career and I think that's how you know when something is your purpose, is when everything lines up.
My passion and purpose is helping people live their best lives and so I feel like people feel their best when they eat well. They emotionally feel their best when they know that they're doing something good for themselves and others. And so much about veganism and eco-friendly living is about the holistic viewpoint. And there’s nothing that excites me more than somebody that says, “You know what, I went vegan because of you. And I’ve never felt better in my life,” which is one of the most common things I hear and it just lights me up in a way that’s just almost unexplainable.
And I also get equally lit up when somebody is following their own passion and purpose, just like you, and we have that in common which makes me so excited about your podcast, is that when people discover their purpose and their passions, it’s life-changing for them.
Richard Janes: There are many other areas of our life that we have to feed. How much does your passion and purpose play into the rest of your life?
Whitney Lauritsen: My personal and professional lives are deeply intertwined. They're one and the same. Anything that I do in my personal life feeds into the professional side because I still share so much in my life. My career is based on sharing my experiences, so it’s so intertwined. Everything I eat, personally, it’s something that I'm going to recommend to something later on professionally. Right? Anything I wear, anything I buy, whatever I do, it’s all connected. So it’s amazing because I love it so much that technically you can say I work almost every minute of the day unless I'm watching Netflix or something, I'm working on something.
Every single thing I do is intertwined. So even if my focus becomes more in creative wealth, I still feel like that was birth out of Eco-Vegan Gal, you know. And so I know that I'm doing the thing I'm meant to do because it feels right all the time.
Even when I'm stressed. “I'm so stressed out, I can’t do this anymore.” It's “I'm stressed out because I've done too much and I need to slow down,” but it's never “I'm stressed out, I'm doing too much. I need to stop.” It’s either I'm going slow or I'm going fast, but there’s no stopping.
That's why I know that this is my purpose, is because I wouldn’t have it any other way. I definitely hit those points where it's challenging but never have I wanted to give up on it or stop it or do something differently.
Richard Janes Commentary: There’s an old adage that “anything worth having is worth fighting for.” And passion and purpose? Well, it’s no different. There’s this romantic notion that once you find that sweet spot, everything is going to be smooth and easy from then on. But this is life and there’s always going to be challenges along the road. It’s inevitable. The key is whether those challenges can push you off-course or whether you can stand fast and work through them.
Sometimes it’s just a case of slowing down. Sometimes it's a case of reassessing. Is what I'm doing today speaking to me at my very best, living in my passion and living in my purpose?
For Whitney, she’s in Los Angeles building this community through her online videos but it isn’t paying enough for her to work full-time. To pay the bills, she’s worked in retail, at an Apple Store in fact, and doing some odd jobs as a personal assistant. But then something clicks.
Whitney Lauritsen: I just had this really big moment. I was so frustrated and I thought “I'm going to quit this job and I'm going to find another one.” And I just knew that I was feeling unfulfilled and stuck. And the week that I was going to quit, I got a new assignment at this personal assistant job and my assignment was to help them write a book.
So these filmmakers, they were entrepreneurial filmmakers which was cool and they were always working on new ways to monetize. And so their new monetization project was to write a book, and the book was about women who had businesses that were helping the environment. And this book was all about how women were building businesses and making money and saving the planet.
And so, it was like an answer from the universe. My job for about three months was to research all of this women around the world who had their own businesses, eco-friendly businesses, learn how they started their businesses, learn how they were making money and get tips from them. So my job was to interview all these women. I interviewed hundreds of women and found out how they created their brands.
And by the end of this project I had all the information I can possibly need to start my own business and the confidence to do it. And so I went to my bosses. There’s two of them and I said, “Hey, so we’ve written this book and it’s finished now. Well, I'm going to put all the advice that this book gave into use and work for myself,” and they were so thrilled to hear that.
And so, somehow I just started figuring it out and because I put that pressure on myself to figure it out, I did. So I think I must have just continued doing freelance work. I started coaching pretty early on I think maybe in 2009 or 2010. I started doing social media coaching. And so that was great. So I think I started doing more of that. I would use my income from the Apple Store, I would use my credit cards a lot and just took it day by day. But I didn’t have any strategies.
So knowing that I had the passion, knowing that I had that purpose and knowing that I had some examples of it, I felt like I just would make it work somehow. And so, I would take it just day by day, week by week, month by month and figure out how I was going to make money each time. And so maybe I would have more hours at the Apple Store, I would get more clients. I just started to pursue opportunities and it just kind of started to pave this path somehow. It certainly wasn’t easy but I thought “I got to make this work.”
And I would be kind of strategic in that I would work for other businesses doing similar things. So one of my jobs was working for a website that talked about natural living and all that, so I would write for websites. I would get paid to submit articles I was paid to edit them. And so I learned the ins and outs of websites, I learned about ad revenue. I learned about affiliate program a lot of that time by working for other people. And so I was making income and learning at the same time, which was incredibly helpful, and that kind of became my path. When I worked for Apple, I learned about technology and then I can go to teach people about technology. That's where I started my coaching and consulting business. And I was basically like using all my income streams to learn to turn working for other people into working for myself.
That perseverance that I have is something that I'm very grateful for because it was that determination to figure it out somehow. And knowing what it was like to not be fulfilled, not be happy in those other jobs, who I was before I started this career, I was not happy, I was not fulfilled. And I thought that that was just the way it was. You’re exhausted, you wake up early, you sit in traffic. You only get through the day because of coffee and you get home and you’re exhausted and you barely have energy to eat and all you want to do is watch Netflix and then you go to bed and you repeat it over.
Now, it’s like I don’t even know what day of the week it is most times and all of these things that I used to feel forced to do, I don’t have to do anymore.
Richard Janes Commentary: How many things would you cut out of your life if you didn’t have to do them anymore? Or to put it another way, how much of your day is spent doing things that speak to your unique passion and purpose? It’s often way easier to forsake our own thinking and personal responsibility than to take a stand and express ourselves facing whatever consequences may unfold.
And yes, the consequences that unfold are not going to be all glorious and plain sailing. There’s going to be struggle, that's life. But the struggle when you’re doing what you love and leading with passion and purpose is a very different struggle from when you’re dancing to someone else’s drum.
And remember, we have 24 hours in a day, 8 hours for sleeping, 8 hours for working, and then those mysterious other 8 hours that we struggle to remember what we actually did with. But imagine if you just scheduled 1 hour a day, just 1 hour you turn off that television, you postpone popping open that bottle of wine. You put the phone down so you wouldn’t be distracted by social media or the latest game and devoted that time just one hour a day to finding, embracing and nurturing your passion and purpose.
One hour a day, 7 hours a week, 365 hours a year. What impact could that have on your life?
Richard Janes: Thank you so much for joining us.
Whitney Lauritsen: Thanks for having me.